BOSTON—A proposal by Gov. Deval Patrick to shrink the drug-free zone around Massachusetts schools is drawing fire from police and prosecutors who say they need the 1,000-foot area and the tougher prison terms that go with it.
But the proposal may have only a minimal practical impact: only 119 people are currently charged with dealing in drug-free zones around schools and parks.
Patrick's plan to reduce the zone to 100 feet is part of legislation the administration filed this week to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses that do not involve guns or children. The administration said the plan is designed to give judges more discretion in sentencing, ease prison overcrowding and focus on violent and repeat offenders.
Some law enforcement officials say the reduction would allow dealers to sell drugs very close to schools and would weaken strong drug laws passed during the 1980s crack cocaine scourge.
"One hundred feet generally is only the distance between two telephone poles. It's a very small area. Quite honestly, somebody could be just across the street from a school and be more than 100 feet away," said A. Wayne Sampson, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.
"Anything we can do to eliminate the drug dealers from the school property and the surrounding areas is extremely important to police," he said.
Plymouth County District Attorney Tim Cruz said prosecutors already use discretion when adding a school zone violation to a suspected drug dealer's charges and generally don't use the law for first-time offenders with small amounts of drugs a safe distance away from schools. But he said the law gives prosecutors leverage in getting suspected drug dealers to plead guilty to other charges and to give authorities information about larger dealers.
"Why would we want to take away that tool for prosecutors instead of giving them more tools?" Cruz said.
Under the governor's proposal, the two-year mandatory minimum sentence for school zone violations would be retained.
Shrinking the size of the drug-free zone by itself is not likely to have a major impact on Patrick's goal to ease prison overcrowding.
State Public Safety Secretary Mary Beth Heffernan said the state currently has a caseload of 119 people charged with school zone violations. Of those, 22 were arrested within 100 feet of a school and 97 were arrested over 100 feet away.
A total of 294 people were convicted of zone violations in Fiscal Year 2009, according to the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission. That was out of a total of 8,093 drug convictions that year.
Supporters of the smaller zone say that many of the people arrested are charged with dealing drugs in their own homes, during hours when schools are not in session and don't realize they are within 1,000 feet of a school.
"The vast majority of people convicted of school zone offenses have no involvement with children," said Barbara Dougan, the Massachusetts project director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. Dougan said Massachusetts has two other laws that impose stiff penalties for selling drugs to minors or using minors to make sales.
"The governor's bill doesn't mean anybody is getting a free pass on the drug offense itself. It returns the school zone bill to it's original intent, which was to protect children," she said.
Heffernan said the school zone reduction is one of a series of steps the governor has proposed to try to focus on violent, habitual offenders rather than low-level offenders. The governor has filed a separate bill designed to require that anyone convicted of a third serious felony receive the maximum sentence and begin serving it only after completing any prior sentences.
The drug-free school zone was proposed in 1989 by Gov. Michael Dukakis, who said at the time that children should be able to go to school "without running the gauntlet of drug pushers."
Heffernan said the size of the current zone has a disproportionate effect on minorities arrested in urban areas.
"It is a fairness issue. If you are in a city, you go anywhere and you are within 1,000 feet of a school zone," she said.
"We think that the scarce resources we have for corrections should be used for violent offenders, habitual offenders, very dangerous offenders," she said.
But law enforcement officials, including state Attorney General Martha Coakley, are already lining up to oppose the smaller zone.
"The school zones allow us to more effectively hold defendants accountable and serve as a deterrent for those engaged in drug dealing," Coakley said.
The Massachusetts Bar Association recommended shrinking the school zone in a 2009 report.
"If someone is caught up in a drug offense through addiction, then they ought to be treated fairly," said Martin Healy, chief legal counsel for the bar association.
"To just corral people because they happen to be in a specific zone when they have no intention of targeting school age children goes beyond the original intent of the law."